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Web Impact: Is 3-D in your marketing plan?

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Any sci-fi fan knows that cyberspace was supposed to be about virtual reality and immersing worlds, not text and graphics on flat Web pages.

Well hang on, because the Second Web, as 3-D vendor Silicon Graphics calls it, is coming soon, and it looks nothing like today's Web. And it will have profound implications for online marketers.

Imagine navigating through rich Web worlds complete with on-the-fly 3-D perspectives, stereo sound, animated scenes and hundreds of fellow visitors represented by graphical avatars. You can expect just about anything to happen in these worlds: Visitors can play games, talk with friends, even help build and colonize cyberspace.

Sounds like a pipe dream, right? Well, yes and no.

MORE THAN A MARKET NICHE

The technology to create such worlds is already here in the form of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, or VRML, which has emerged as the standard for building 3-D sites.

VRML was first created more than two years ago, but it recently took a major step forward with a new specification, VRML 2.0, which adds more lifelike activity and animation to VRML worlds.

And have no doubt, 3-D on the Web is not a niche market. Microsoft Corp., Sony, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Netscape Communications Corp., IBM Corp. and Apple Computer have joined a slew of garage startups and funky design shops in backing VRML.

But despite the rapid evolution of VRML, the technology is still in its infant stages. Vendors have yet to create VRML browsers that fully support all the features in VRML 2.0, and 3-D artists are still learning to work with VRML 2.0.

BUILDING INTERACTIVE WORLDS

Some vendors, however, are already stretching the limits of VRML. Black Sun Interactive, Oz Interactive and Worlds Inc. are already shipping technology to build interactive, multiuser 3-D worlds. For instance, Worlds' AlphaWorld not only lets visitors adapt an avatar and walk around a 3-D world, it also provides tools so that every visitor can build their own virtual homes.

Meanwhile, 3-D has already hit big in the video game industry, led by Id Software's Quake, which lets players join in virtual "clans" that battle one another in 3-D Quake-space.

It will be easy for online marketers to miss out on the coming boom in 3-D worlds. Both the technology (such as 3-D graphics cards and souped up workstations) as well as the developers (graphic artists, 3-D hackers and hardcore gamers) spurring VRML can be intimidating. And the opportunities for online marketers in these virtual worlds may not immediately be obvious.

USE 3-D SITES FOR ADS

For instance, the marketing community's first instinct may be to build their own 3-D worlds, just as early Web marketers such as Pepsi-Cola Co. and MCI Communications Corp. jumped into Web content. Forget about it. No one wants to visit "Ad World."

A better play may be to populate other 3-D worlds with billboards and product placements. If you have a VRML 2.0 browser, check out the 3-D Genesis Project run by Miller Freeman's 3-D Design magazine, which is planning to offer 3-D interactive ads later this year.

RULES ARE STILL BEING WRITTEN

All of these new virtual worlds will undoubtedly look to ad revenue as part of their business model, though over-commercialization will be a major concern.

The bigger -- but more speculative -- play, however, may be to dive into 3-D space and homestead virtual shops and office fronts yourself, creating new virtual brands in the process. There's a new world coming and the rules are still being written: Don't get left behind.

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for NetGuide Magazine and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osbore/McGraw Hill.spurring VRML can be intimidating. And the opportunities for online marketers in these virtual worlds may not immediately be obvious.

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